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Researchers discover evidence of earliest domestic chickens

Posted on 24 November 2014

An international research team including a University of York biologist has found the earliest evidence for chicken domestication to date.

Michi Hofreiter, of the University of Potsdam in Germany and an Honorary Professor in York’s Department of Biology, led the research with Professor Xingbo Zhao from China Agricultural University in Beijing.

The researchers obtained mitochondrial DNA sequences from up to 10,000 year old chicken fossils originating from northern China. At this age, the sequences are several thousands of years older than any other chicken ancient DNA sequences reported previously.

Moreover, despite their age, the northern Chinese chicken sequences already represent the three major groups of mitochondrial DNA sequences present in the modern chicken gene pool, suggesting genetic continuity between these oldest chicken bones known worldwide and modern chicken populations. The research is reported in PNAS.

Based on modern DNA sequences scientists had already suggested that chickens had been domesticated in different places in south and south-east Asia, but previously northern China had never been suggested as a location for chicken domestication.

Professor Xingbo Zhao said: “People argued that northern China did not provide suitable habitat for red jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of domestic chickens but they do not take into account that climate and vegetation were very different 10,000 years ago.”

The results not only suggest northern China as one of the earliest places for chicken domestication but also that the domestication of chicken, today the most important poultry species in the world, started as early as those of the other four agriculturally important animal species, cattle, pigs, goat and sheep. Moreover, the results provide further evidence for an early agricultural complex in northern China.

Professor Hofreiter, who is also an associate member of the University of York’s Palaeo research centre, added: “These are really exciting results as they suggest that societies with mixed agriculture developed in northern China around the same time they did so in the Near East”.

Further information:

  • The paper “Early Holocene chicken domestication in northern China” is published in PNAS.
  • For more information about the Department of Biology at the University of York, please visit
  • For more information about Palaeo at the University of York, please visit

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